5 fundamental strength training exercises you should include in every workout

Your workout routine doesn’t need to be complicated. Perform these five fundamental moves throughout your week, and you’ll be on the simple road to strength. 

Whether it’s training to handstand, perfecting a new yoga flow or deadlifting our heaviest weight yet, trying new things keeps working out from getting repetitive and, well, boring. But it can also feel overwhelming: like there’s a never-ending stream of exercises you should be doing to keep your body at its strongest and fittest. 

Among the never-ending stream of online workouts, it’s easier than ever to get confused about which exercises deserve a place in your training. And there’s nothing less motivating than finishing a workout with a myriad of questions: is that new pulsing lunge variation you saw in a video better than the lunge you learned from a personal trainer on the gym floor? Should you focus on lower body strength more than upper body workouts? What really is the most effective way to do a press-up? 

The answer is simple: stop overcomplicating it. If you’re just trying to enjoy your training and build a functional body that sees you through life, you don’t need to worry. In fact, there are only really five moves you need to work on.

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“There are four key players when it comes to fundamental movement patterns for functional strength. These are push, pull, hinge and squat,” explains personal trainer Nancy Best. “But because bodies aren’t perfectly symmetrical, it’s also important to include accessory movements that balance out the body.” 

So why these four? Well, “firstly, they are compound lifts – recruiting multiple muscle groups in one repetition, so you’re getting much more ‘bang for your buck’. Secondly, these movements replicate how we use our bodies in real life. Whether you’re picking up a baby from a cot, or bending down to grab something from the floor, you’re moving through these patterns. The more our bodies build stability and power in these positions, the more we can minimise our chances of injury.”

Strength training: push, pull, hinge and squat are the four basic moves

However, that fifth discipline of accessory work is just as important as the big four. “If you’re not physically capable or able to get into those positions, just exercising them over and over won’t make them any better,” says weight lifter Jenny Tong. “For example,  squatting to your limit is great, but if your depth or mobility in the squat is inhibited by poor hip flexion or weak ankles, then adding weight onto your squat is going to risk injury.”

The fact that these “smaller exercises can work on opening up the body before going on to larger movements” is why they’re so important. 

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A squat is pretty self-explantory, but to define it, it involves bending the knees and lowering the hips to the floor. This targets the quads, glutes, hamstrings and core and, if you add weight, can also strengthen the upper body by stabilising through the back, chest and shoulders. 

The best squatting exercises

  • Goblet squat
  • Front squat 
  • Back squat 
  • Split squat

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A hinge movement comes from the hips, driving them forwards or backwards. For example, the deadlift causes you to bend backwards at the waist, pushing the hips behind you to lift the bar off of the floor. Usually, they work the lower body. 

The best hinging exercises: 

  • Deadlifts
  • RDLs
  • Hip thrusts
  • Good mornings


Pushing exercises typically work your chest, shoulders and front of the upper body. 

Best pushing exercises: 

  • Press-up
  • Chest press
  • Overhead press

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Pulling exercises tend to focus on your posterior – that is the back of the body: think lats, rear delts and lower back. 

Best pulling exercises:

  • Pull up 
  • Row variations, such as bent over row or single arm row
  • Overhead pull

Accessory moves

These exercises are more focused on isolating smaller muscles, and there’s a never ending supply of them to work on. The purpose behind them is to build stability and strength in the muscles that support your bigger lifts, for example bicep curls strengthen the front of the arms, but also support you in all of your pulling moves. Clams strengthen the glute med, the muscles on the outside of the hip which are harder to target with compound lifts such as squats or hip thrusts. 

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How to use these movement patterns in your training

Whether you want to divide your week into lower body and upper body splits or do a few full-body workouts, including a good mix of each of these movements across the week is important for a well-balanced body. 

“A good rule of thumb is to programme your compound movements at the start of the session, before you move on to accessory work,” explains Nancy. This is mainly because compound lifts are more exhausting on your muscles and mindset than accessory moves. 

For example, you might do a lower body session focusing on one squat and hinge move, and a few accessory exercises after. Then an upper body workout with one push, one pull and a few accessory moves too. Or, you may prefer full body workouts, in which case you could mix up which patterns you train throughout the week until you find a split that works well for you. 

Want more strength-training workouts? Sign up for the your free 14-day trial to the Strong Women Training Club to receive weekly workouts from your favourite trainers. 

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Images: Getty 

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